The Uplift universe is made up of a hierarchy of alien species. The dominant paradigm is that it is not possible for a species to reach sentience and space travel on their own. Rather, a patron race must lift them up through genetic manipulation. The uplifted species is then indentured to the patron species for 10,000 years. This worldview believes in an ancient race, called the Progenitors, who uplifted the current patron races and then left. Humans are an anomaly, a "wofling" race that raised itself up to space travel and are thus beholden to no patron race. Though puny and young, the humans' very existence causes a significant rift in the complex politics of the universe. Many believe they were secretly uplifted and not told. It's much more complicated than that. All the various races are constantly fighting for power. And they are all different species, so they have different worldviews, physiologies, cultures, etc. Some are helpful to the humans; others hostile.
A powerful tool in this mythos is the Library, a vast, ancient and inscrutable collection of knowledge, pieces of which are handed down parsimoniously by the patron races. Most species learn their tech through the library. The humans have access to the Library, but in a very limited and convoluted way and they pride themselves on developing their own tech, though it is significantly primitive in relation to what the library can offer. Humans have uplifted chimpanzees and dolphins, who by the law of the universe are thus indebted to them. But humans try to maintain an equal relationship with their client species, another violation of the uplift laws.
Startide Rising takes place on a distant planet, covered in metallic-water and small, metal islands. The human ship The Streaker accidently discovered a vast, derelict fleet. A communication about it back to earth is intercepted. The derelict fleet could have information of the Progenitors. All the patron races rush to catch the streaker, which has the fleet's coordinates and a corpse taken from one of the ships. The human ship hunkers down underwater, while the competing fleets battle in the skies above them.
It took me a while to get into Startide Rising. I was held back trying to get all the details of the setting and by my own hesitancy. Furthermore, the relationships between dolphins, humans and the one scientist chimp on board are equally complicated and take a while to absorb. But once I did, the narrative really too off. The characters are interesting and compelling. The antagonists are infuriating and you really want them to get theirs. The story and the science and the idea that humans are kind of cool renegades among a bunch of super-powerful but super-dogmatic alien races all blend together to create a really exciting read. I tore through the second half and am definitely going to read the next one.
Finally, there is a strong ecological theme hiding under the surface. Humans still carry the shame of their history towards other mammals and it colours their relationships with their client species. It is also an interesting form of extreme colonialism. Technologically superior species don't just come and exploit the natives, they genetically manipulate them into forms that are pleasing to them and use them as servants/slaves.
Good stuff, strongly recommended.